The village had been tiny and isolated, a place of mud walls and thatched roofs occupied mainly by fisherfolk and trappers. Now it was nothing but charred wood, ashes, faint traces of smoke, and the still-hot remains of a couple of larger huts.
"Did it have a name?" asked Tavros, his voice thick. The silver scales rippled along his arms as he studied the devastation.
Olvern shook his head. He was human, dressed in drab clothing and a brown cloak that hung ragged around the edges; but despite its condition, his boots and belt and blades were clean and polished and neatly arranged. A bow was strapped to his pack, quiver beside it in easy reach. "It's marked on the maps as Lakeside, but that's a convenience. The people who lived here just called it the village."
"And now it's not even that," said Anica, looking around. "Did you know them?" She was sturdy and red-haired, though without the temper that tradition ascribed to redheads, and she kept her crossbow out as they looked around.
Olvern again shook his head. "Not many, not well. They always offered hospitality when I passed through, and I always did what I could to help out, but... that was seldom more than once a year. It was sheer luck that I happened to be passing close enough to see the smoke."
"Bandits?" mused Tarric. "This seems too brutal for that."
"And these people were poor," Olvern added. There was a touch of elvish blood visible in his features -- the narrow face, the slightly-golden brown eyes -- but only a touch. "Bandits might come to steal their food, but they had little else. And why put the whole place to the torch?"
Tavros nodded and extended his senses, but found nothing: no sense of supernatural evil, no immediate threats. The village was empty. "Any tracks?" he asked.
"I'll see," answered Olvern. "You three stay here. You'll muck up anything that's left if you start moving around." He slipped away, feet soft on the cold ground as he moved slowly, searching.
The three paladins waited, remaining wary. The woods here were barren with the last traces of winter, and quiet; but then, Tavros, supposed, the birds and animals would have fled from the fire. Olvern had gone directly to the temple, and the three of them had come immediately while some of the priests made ready to follow; but whatever had happened here, they'd missed it.
After a time, Olvern returned, circling around from the other side of the former village. "Tracks," he said. "Heading east. They're a mix of sizes, from a fairly large group -- maybe thirty individuals, which is more than lived here in the village. A few boots, some bare feet, a lot that look to have been crudely wrapped with cloth or leather. Half a day old, maybe a bit more -- they probably left shortly after I passed by."
Which means that by the time Olvern reached us, it was already too late. Tavros tamped a sudden surge of anger -- not at Olvern or the temple or even himself, but at the world, the gods, and the injustice of it all.
Olvern continued: "I didn't see another signs; if anybody escaped into the woods, they left no tracks. And based on the timing, I doubt anybody did. The raiders would have arrived a few hours before dawn, when everyone would have been asleep in their homes."
"Why didn't you help?" asked Tarric, suddenly. He was human, young as Tavros and Anica, dark-haired and tanned with time spent in the sun. "Why didn't you come down here and help them?" He sounded pained; he sounded angry.
Olvern drew a deep breath and released it, looking away for a long moment before turning back to the paladins. "I was up there, in the hills." He pointed. "I was nearly as close to the temple as I was to the village. I saw smoke; I didn't realize they'd been attacked. So I went to get help, because that was what I thought they'd need: clergy to mend wounds and perhaps help with repairs. Even paladins could have made a start on that, and if the temple preferred to send you out first I wasn't going to argue."
He turned away from Tarric, a deliberate gesture, and looked back at the smoldering ruins. "So here we are. And we know which way the attackers went. And it may be too late to help anyone who lived here, but I can lead you to the ones who did this... and we can make jolly damned sure they never do it to anyone else, ever again."
Tarric lowered his head. "Sorry," he said, and then, "Yes. Yes. Let's find these raiders, and finish them."
Tavros looked at Anica,who nodded. Her hand quivered on the grip of her crossbow.
"Very well," he said. "I'll leave a mark for the priests, when they arrive. Then we give chase."